Why does the Church make today a Holy Day of Obligation, requiring Catholics to attend Mass today? It’s because in seeing the Saints, we see our pathway to Heaven. In Mark 10:42-45, we learn from Jesus what true greatness looks like:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In recognizing and honoring Saints, the Church is pointing to those who did this successfully. Hopefully, these positive examples, and the thought that they now enjoy union with God in Heaven, spurs us to devote ourselves more fully to task of being Christian.
Hebrews 11 points us to this. The entire chapter is a sort of Hall of Fame of Saints, showing how they lived glorious lives and performed mighty deeds, animated by faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses’ parents, Moses, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the army around Jericho, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, and so on.
If we want to be great, this Hall of Fame shows us what greatness looks like in practice, and something to strive for — which is, after all, the primary reason that any sport has a Hall of Fame. There are records to beat, goals to achieve, accomplishments to strive towards. So it is in faith.
But these Hall of Famers aren’t simply dead and gone. Rather, they’re enjoying the fullness of life in Heaven, praying and interceding for us constantly. And that where Hebrews 12 comes in. Right after listing this Hall of Fame of Saints, Hebrews 12:1-3 explains:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the Cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
So they’re not just a Hall of Fame, but a cheering crowd, rooting for us in Heaven. A baseball Hall of Famer may jealously cling to his record, not wanting future generations to ever break it. Not so with the Saints: they want their records to be broken: they want you to be a better Saint than even they were.
When we worship God, it’s for our good, not His. He is in no need of praise: we add nothing to His Glory. On the other hand, we are in dire need of recognizing that we’re not God, and that He is. Likewise, in honoring the Saints, we’re doing them no favors, but doing ourselves an enormous favor. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, explained this in a passage from this morning’s Office of Readings:
Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.Come, brothers, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honor. When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendor with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head.Therefore, we should aim at attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. That we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must above all seek the prayers of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercession.
The great cloud of Saints is calling us to come home to Jesus, to enjoy Heaven with Him and them eternally, and to continue our journey of faith with vigor and hope. They show us the true greatness of faith.
Update: In Eastern Catholic churches, All Saints Sunday is celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost, rather than November 1. It was June 3 this year. So if you’re Eastern Catholic, feel free to save this post, and come back to it next summer.